Soon to re­tire, Panetta still fight­ing Pen­tagon spend­ing cuts

If de­fense chief leaves with­out avert­ing ‘dooms­day sce­nario,’ it will be a rare dis­ap­point­ment in a long and il­lus­tri­ous ca­reer

The Washington Post Sunday - - OLITICS & THE NATION - BY CRAIG WHIT­LOCK whit­lockc@wash­post.com

As he pre­pares to re­tire to his Cal­i­for­nia wal­nut farm this month, De­fense Sec­re­tary Leon E. Panetta is still fight­ing the bat­tle that has con­sumed his en­tire ten­ure at the Pen­tagon: an in­creas­ingly des­per­ate cam­paign to per­suade Congress not to whack de­fense spend­ing.

In re­cent days, Panetta, 74, has ut­tered near-apoc­a­lyp­tic warn­ings about what will hap­pen if Congress does not do some­thing by March 1 to avert a “dooms­day sce­nario” un­der which the De­fense De­part­ment could be re­quired to slash $43 bil­lion in spend­ing in the next seven months, and as much as $500 bil­lion in the next decade.

Those cuts, he told law­mak­ers last week, would turn the mighty U.S. mil­i­tary “into a sec­ond-rate power” and would force the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion to throw its en­tire na­tional-se­cu­rity strat­egy “out the win­dow.”

He has warned that naval op­er­a­tions in the Pa­cific would shrink by a third. All mil­i­tary train­ing would slow to a crawl. And al­most ev­ery civil­ian em­ployee at De­fense could be fur­loughed, as much as one day a week for the rest of the fis­cal year.

At a farewell cer­e­mony Fri­day at Fort Myer, Pres­i­dent Obama praised Panetta, say­ing, “No one has raised their voice as firmly or as force­fully on be­half of our troops as you have.”

Obama also urged Congress to work out a new deal with him to avoid what he called “mas­sive, in­dis­crim­i­nate cuts that could have a se­vere im­pact on our mil­i­tary pre­pared­ness.”

He added, “There is no rea­son, no rea­son for that to hap­pen.”

It is the same mes­sage that Panetta has de­liv­ered, so far to no avail, al­most ev­ery day since he took over as de­fense sec­re­tary in July 2011. The next month, he was sad­dled with the task of shrink­ing the mil­i­tary af­ter Obama and Congress agreed to cut $487 bil­lion in pro­jected de­fense spend­ing for the next 10 years.

But that was just the first swing of the ax. Un­der the rest of the deal, the Pen­tagon would be forced to cut $500 bil­lion more in the same pe­riod if law­mak­ers and the White House could not come up with an­other, more palat­able wayto re­duce the na­tion’s record deficits.

It ap­pears highly un­likely that Congress and the White House will reach a deal to spare the Pen­tagon be­fore Panetta retires. It will fall to his suc­ces­sor — Obama has nom­i­nated former se­na­tor Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) for the job — to man­age any fur­ther cuts. But Panetta’s fail­ure to pre­vent what he de­scribed as the worst-case sce­nario will mark the end of an oth­er­wise in­flu­en­tial and col­or­ful ca­reer in Washington that has spanned four decades.

The high point came in May 2011 when, as CIA di­rec­tor, Panetta over­saw the suc­cess­ful and dar­ing strike that killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Along the way, he served as White House chief of staff dur­ing the Clin­ton ad­min­is­tra­tion and as chair­man of the House Bud­get Com­mit­tee, where he earned a rep­u­ta­tion as a skill­ful ne­go­tia­tor on fis­cal is­sues.

It was largely for his bud­get and leg­isla­tive ex­per­tise that Obama tapped Panetta to lead the Pen­tagon, which now faces a wrench­ing con­sol­i­da­tion af­ter years of growth fu­eled by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As de­fense sec­re­tary and as CIA chief, the gre­gar­i­ous and guf­faw­prone Panetta got along well with Congress. He was unan­i­mously con­firmed by the Se­nate to lead the Pen­tagon and main­tained a good rap­port even with the most hard­nosed law­mak­ers.

“I feel I’ve been jerked around by ev­ery CIA di­rec­tor,” Sen. Bar­bara A. Mikul­ski (D-Md.), groused dur­ing a hear­ing Thurs­day, “with the ex­cep­tion of Mr. Panetta.”

Panetta’s re­la­tion­ships on Capi­tol Hill, how­ever, have been in­suf­fi­cient to over­turn the au­to­matic de­fense cuts. The leg­isla­tive grid­lock has prompted him to vent his crit­i­cism of Congress in more per­sonal terms than in the past.

Dur­ing a visit to a U.S. mil­i­tary base in Italy last month, he ques­tioned law­mak­ers’ courage, con­trast­ing their in­ac­tion to his troops’ will­ing­ness to give their lives for their coun­try.

“You take the worst risks of all, which is that some­body may shoot you and you may die,” Panetta said. “It’s a hell of a risk. You know, all we’re ask­ing of our elected lead­ers is to take a small part of the risk that maybe, you know, they’ll piss off some con­stituents.”

Panetta’s full-throated lob­by­ing to pre­serve the de­fense bud­get has sur­prised some former col­leagues, who re­mem­ber his will­ing­ness to down­scale the mil­i­tary af­ter the Cold War when he served in Congress and later as bud­get di­rec­tor in the Clin­ton ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Gor­don Adams, an Amer­i­can Univer­sity pro­fes­sor of for­eign pol­icy who worked with Panetta at the White House in the 1990s, said he was “al­most flab­ber­gasted” by the de­fense sec­re­tary’s re­sis­tance to cuts this time around.

With the end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, com­pounded by the na­tion’s heavy debts, Adams said Panetta should rec­og­nize that the Pen­tagon will in­evitably have to down­size fur­ther.

“If you hear all of the rhetoric, you’d think the sky is fall­ing,” Adams said. “But it’s not dooms­day.”

In the short term, an­a­lysts said, the Pen­tagon may have made things more painful for the mil­i­tary by re­fus­ing to plan for the worst.

Through­out Panetta’s ten­ure, de­fense of­fi­cials have as­sumed that Congress would even­tu­ally over­turn the au­to­matic cuts, so they kept spend­ing at their usual rate in­stead of sav­ing. Now, with the fed­eral fis­cal year al­most half over, the Pen­tagon might have to slash $43 bil­lion from its an­nual bud­get by the end of Septem­ber in­stead of hav­ing a full year to ab­sorb the re­duc­tions.

In ef­fect, Panetta and the White House were bet­ting that law­mak­ers would see the au­to­matic de­fense cuts as so harm­ful that they would blink and change their minds. If the Pen­tagon had moved ear­lier to trim spend­ing, it risked mak­ing the cuts ap­pear man­age­able, an­a­lysts said.

“There is this sort of games­man­ship or brinkman­ship that is in­volved,” said An­drew F. Kre­pinevich, pres­i­dent of the Cen­ter for Strate­gic and Bud­getary As­sess­ments, a na­tional se­cu­rity think tank in Washington. “I think Panetta walked that line pretty well. It’s easy to un­der­stand why he’d want to de­lay.”

In a speech Wed­nes­day at Ge­orge­town Univer­sity, Panetta made a last-ditch at­tempt to per­suade Congress to come to the Pen­tagon’s res­cue. He warned law­mak­ers that they risk a voter re­volt if the cuts go for­ward, re­call­ing pub­lic anger at the leg­isla­tive grid­lock that briefly shut down the fed­eral government in 1995 and 1996.

“Same damn thing is go­ing to hap­pen again if they al­low this to oc­cur,” he said.

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